Wales v Dixon [2020]: How the Use of Familial Terms in a Will Can Confuse its Interpretation

By Tanya Kriplani Manglani

In 2008, Peter Wales executed his will explaining how his estate, which is worth £600,000, would be divided. It remained sealed and in the possession of the will writer until Wales’ death in 2015.

Once opened, however, there was a lot of uncertainty around what the will actually meant. As per clause 7 of his will, Wales had instructed that his estate was to be divided between his “nieces and nephews” in equal parts. Whilst the terms “niece” and “nephew” might be considered very simple to construe in any day-to-day interactions, in a legal context, they hold a very broad definition. The court therefore considered two different constructions of the will:

  • The first interpretation defined the terms “nieces and nephews” as being nieces and nephews that were related to Wales by blood. In this scenario, his estate would have been split seven ways since he had two blood nephews and two blood nieces who, between them, had three children.

  • The second interpretation, however, would have required the estate to be split fifteen ways, as he also had three nephews and one niece by marriage who had four children between them.

This confusion caused by something as simple as not specifically outlining what was meant by the terms “niece” and “nephew” led to the case being taken to court, with Wales’ blood relatives and marital relatives on opposing sides. The litigation process was incredibly expensive, and the cost, which is estimated to be approximately £100,000, was taken out of the estate as the dispute was caused by the wording in the will.

The conclusion that was reached was that the estate should be split fifteen ways, as even though there was no indication that Wales intended to include his nieces and nephews by marriage in his will, there was equally no indication that he intended to exclude them. The precedents set in the cases of Re Daoust [1944] and Marley v Rawlings [2015] were used as further justifications of the outcome.

Master Teverson, who was presiding on the case, was incredibly critical of the will writer Wales had worked with. He made it a point to highlight the importance of clearly assigning definitions to any familial terms being used in legally binding documents in his judgement, as not doing so can confuse the construction of the document in question, leading to a lengthy, costly process which could have likely been avoided.


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